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2003 Mercedes-Benz E320

Greg N. Brown
Jan 8, 2003 SHARE

A favorite twisty road, in a new E320 sedan, the staple of the Mercedes-Benz lineup. Just ahead is an equally new E500, driven by a favorite colleague and former sports car and rally racer. Would she be in the mood to attack the 30 miles of perplexing apexes and acute cambers? Or would she just one-hand it back to the hotel, content to relax in the luxurious environs of the E-Class? She attacks.

And I follow. Or try to. My sedan is down on power--221 bhp from its 3.2-liter V6 to the 302 bhp from the E500's 5.0-liter V8--and she definitely has me on traction. Standard E320 footwear is 8x16-in. alloys mounted with 225/55R16 all-season radials. The E500 is fitted with 8.5x17s and 245/45R17s, still all-seasons. Both cars can be optioned with performance rubber, and the E320's shoes can be upsized to E500 specs, though that isn't the case today.

Which becomes all too obvious after a 2-mile run through corners marked from 15 to 25 mph. The overworked all-season tires no longer bite into the pavement, and I have my hands full of understeer. Slow in, fast out was never a better idea than on that road's narrow pavement.

Good braking is crucial when pushing a car with less than optimum rubber, and Mercedes' electronic brake system delivers. Despite the aggressive stomping of my right foot, it gives me as much braking as needed, when needed. In addition to the advantages of big, vented discs and front four-piston calipers, the system adjusts brake pressures individually among the four wheels, even increasing pressure on just the outside wheels when braking through corners. And the pedal pulses associated with ABS are gone, improving feel and increasing the chance a driver will stay on the brakes in an emergency. Data from Mercedes' driving simulator suggests two-thirds of all drivers ease up on the pedal when those pulses are felt.

The E500 has all this plus bigger rotors, so the "pace car" drives a bit further into the corners, though this isn't such an advantage on this road because of the severity of corner angles and uneven pavement.

She does, however, have a very big advantage with the E500's standard-issue AIRmatic DC (Dual Control), a new version of the adaptive suspension first seen on the current S-Class. It automatically chooses between four levels of shock damping, from sport to comfort modes, depending on input from several sensors. Plus, for its E-Class application, AIRmatic DC is teamed with ADS II, an adaptive damping system that allows the driver to choose between three suspension damping levels from comfort to sporty with the flick of a cockpit switch. (For full technical details, see europeancarweb.com and our report on the E500.)

What that meant for her heavier car was minimal body roll and pitch, tempering the effects of the constant weight transfer imposed by the never-straight road. For $1,575 as a stand-alone option or as part of a $3,800 sport package, the semi-active system can, and should, be fitted to the E320. It's that good. The sport package also includes black wood trim, white gauges, bi-xenon headlights with washers, sport wheels, and sculpted front, side and rear aprons. It's a $1,375 option on the E500.

Even though she's not losing me, I can imagine, having driven the E500 earlier that day, how much more easily her car is handling the road's varied challenges. The new Es share a quicker rack-and-pinion steering system than before and all Mercedes have Electronic Stability Program, but her bigger brakes, wider footprint and more powerful engine mean my hapless passenger has to display inordinate confidence in my driving as I struggle to keep her in sight. Exiting corners is where she gains the most advantage: Her V8 has over a 100 lb-ft more torque than my V6, plus it's available from 2700 to 4250 rpm compared to the six's 232 lb-ft from 3000 to 4800 rpm.

We're both using only the second and third of the automatic transmission's five gears, madly slapping the "Touch Shift" lever to the right for upshifts, left for a lower gear. Electronics prevent over-revs and shifting logic adapts gearchanges to the type of driving. Just as it is with the brakes, operation of the gearbox is efficient and unobtrusive, allowing me to concentrate on keeping the car between the oak trees that line the road.

Admittedly, thoughts of the E-Class' safety systems creep into my thoughts after one or two especially squirrely corners. The new E has a stronger body structure (18% more torsional rigidity), eight airbags, including a side curtain windowbag for each side and two-stage front airbags, and a new rollover detection system that deploys the seatbelt tensioners and windowbags if it senses this kind of wreck. The new 10-way power seats added to my sense of security, though I'm looking forward to driving an E-Class with the optional Drive-Dynamic front seats, which automatically adjust the bolsters to hold driver and passenger more securely in place.

As our fun run comes to an end in a small town near our hotel, I have time to admire the new E-Class styling. It's a successful design from any angle and makes the bread-and-butter sedan as sporty looking as any family hauler on the highway. It's so full of amenities that the E320's $46,950 and E500's $54,850 base prices seem quite reasonable. Adjusted for content, they're actually less expensive than their predecessors. The options list, though, is prolific, and were every box to be ticked off, it would raise the E320's tariff to over $75,000! Even without all the extra stuff, the new E-Class is an impressive upgrading of the model most responsible for spreading the Mercedes message. There was nothing on that 30-mile stretch of road to alter the fact that the E-Class is still the best all-around model adorned by the three-pointed star.

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By Greg N. Brown
57 Articles

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